Regenerative agriculture and compost projects sprout around Waco

November 27, 2023
Volunteers hand out fresh food to those in need

Photo Credit: Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald

The Sustainable Communities and Regenerative Agriculture Project Collective, a group of climate-smart organizations, is implementing grant-funded projects in Waco aimed toward public food production, education and composting as a means to reduce food waste.

Emily Hills, director of Mission Waco’s Urban Renewable Energy and Agricultural Project and SCRAP Collective pioneer, said in a presentation to the city of Waco’s Sustainable Resource Practices Advisory Board that the project aims to find the intersection of community, sustainability and food.

“So the idea is to build both infrastructure, the actual physical things to advance compost collection and processing, gardening, food production, but also the education around that too,” she said.

Hills said she was approached by Waco Sustainability Programs Manager Eric Coffman and others in the sustainability landscape at the beginning of 2022 with a grant opportunity from The Funders Network’s Partners for Places program.

Hills said the Partners for Places grants from the Florida-based organization focus on climate change mitigation and addressing issues of racial equity. It requires at least three partners involved in the process, including a local funder, in this case the Cooper Foundation, and local government, covered by the city sustainability department.

“And then the last bit is a frontline community group, and they define a frontline community group as a community that is at the interaction of historical oppression and also the impacts of climate change,” Hills said.

The group first received a $10,000 mini-grant and matching local funds for planning and formation of the collective, and later received a full $150,000 grant with additional matching funds.

In the planning phase the group focused on composting and landfill diversion as an opportunity for climate change mitigation, as the landfill emits high levels of greenhouse gases, Hills said. According to a SCRAP press release, some 40% of food in the United States becomes waste, and 25% of the Waco landfill is made up of food waste.

On top of its effects on landfill capacity, food waste in the landfill releases large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane, which is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“In fact, if wasted food were a country, it would be third in greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the U.S.,” the press release says, taking into account emissions required to produce, transport and handle foods before reaching the landfill.

Hills said people who are have lower income and communities of color tend to be more disadvantaged and are more disproportionately affected by environmental degradation. About 29.8% of McLennan County residents live in poverty and 15.4% suffer from food insecurity, the press release says.

“It’s not that we don’t all, in fact, get impacted by environmental harm, but if we have resources we can insulate ourselves from that negative effect, whereas lower income communities can’t,” Hills said.

The planning phase also exposed the collective’s wishes to increase representation from organizations led by people of color, Hills said. Stephanie Boddie, a Baylor University assistant professor of church and community ministries, came aboard the project as the equity facilitator, bringing along her social work and partnership expertise. She is working with the collective on not only racial equity, but also to connect with schools and churches.

Boddie is just one of the multiple frontline community partners making up the collective.

World Hunger Relief Institute, a nonprofit farm focused on regenerative agriculture and addressing food insecurity, was an early partner on the project. The farm provides fresh locally grown foods, processes several tons of compost per year through its finely tuned system and offers many educational opportunities for children, interns and adults.

Global Revive, an East Waco-based nonprofit led by Kay Bell, focuses on healthy and local eating by getting members involved in their own gardening projects. Bell said SCRAP’s grant funds allowed her to start a community garden and VIP Gardens for senior-aged people.

So far, Global Revive members have built about 10 raised beds in backyards, which allow older individuals to grow their own produce, with more coming in January. People without space for a garden can also build a bed at the community garden on Taylor Street, and each new gardener is given a compost bucket to collect waste.

“It has been a great asset to the senior citizens who are not aware that compost can do such a great thing to the soil,” Bell said.

Joshua King, another partner from Baylor University, started an environmental humanities minor program, which looks at how arts and literature reflect on and impact humans’ relationship with the environment. He also helps curate Baylor’s community garden, mobilizing students to engage with the outdoor world.

“He has a very intentional approach to the environmental humanities where his students are learning about this, but also doing engaged learning, so going out into the community,” Hills said.

Da’ Shack Farmers Market, led by Donna Nickerson at 925 Houston St., focuses on diverting food waste by educating the community on how to compost. Nickerson said her on-site gardens are open to visitors looking to pick and purchase organic vegetables, herbs, fruit and nursery plants, and their educational opportunities are free.

“We collaborate with other people in the community, so a lot of times when we have classes we’ll have people come in to offer a little more education,” she said.

The market is open from March through January, but grant funds allow Da’ Shack to purchase supplies and be open for year-round education. Nickerson said she is always available for questions through social media as well.

Family of Faith Worship Center, 4112 Memorial Drive, used grant money to create a community garden, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables for the church’s food pantry that feeds about 800 families every week. A grant-funded compost pile takes food waste from the pantry and turns it into rich soil, which is then put back into the community garden, likely the cause of the lush cilantro, cabbage and lettuce that was planted a few months ago, Pastor Ruben Andrade said.

The church takes a holistic approach, using its garden and compost as an educational tool, Andrade said. It also provides health screenings and is partnering with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District to provide cooking and nutrition classes, he said.

“The most important part is that this has been an educational resource to educate and empower our community,” Andrade said. “So many times we do not eat healthy, which compels us to be unhealthy.”

Urban REAP, Mission Waco’s agriculture project, was able to grow its compost club with the grant funds. The compost program allows members to collect their own scraps to be processed by Urban REAP’s machinery, which composts meat and dairy as well as plant materials by ensuring ingredients are at a proper temperature, at a rate of 160 pounds every 24 hours.

“Since we started the SCRAP Collective officially we’ve had 41 new households added to our subscribers and we’ve collected over 17,000 pounds, and that’s just from May to now … so that’s a really exciting metric when we think about diverting food waste,” said Hills, Urban REAP director.

The grant also largely subsidizes a continuing education composting certification course Hills leads through McLennan Community College. It involves six weeks of classroom and outdoor learning, yielding community members confident about composting.

Story originally written and published on the Waco Tribune-Herald website.